Shambhala Sun | May 2014
The Myth of Multitasking
We have the illusion that multitasking makes us more
efficient, but it only makes us unhappy. SHARON SALZBERG shares some tips for
getting work done well without getting worked up.
We would like to
believe that attention is infinite, but it isn’t. That is why multitasking is a
misnomer. The brain can focus only on one thing at a time. We take in
information sequentially. When we attempt to focus on multiple tasks
simultaneously, what actually happens is that we switch back and forth between
tasks, paying less attention to both. This does not mean that we can’t walk and
chew gum at the same time, of course. What we cannot do is concentrate in the
same moment on two distinct, input-rich activities that require our attention.
While we may be able to talk on the phone and stir coffee simultaneously, we
can’t carry on a conversation and text at the same time without losing
information and time. Studies show that when people are interrupted and have to
switch their attention back and forth, they take—on average—
50 percent longer to accomplish the task and make up to 50 percent more errors.
That’s because each time you switch tasks, your brain has to run through a
complex process to disengage the neurons involved in one task and activate the
neurons needed for the other. The more you switch back and forth, the more time
you waste and the lower your quality of work.
Strung out by
information overload, however, many of us are becoming habituated and addicted
to distraction. “Successful” multitasking has been shown to activate the reward
circuit in the brain by increasing dopamine levels—the brain chemical
responsible for feelings of happiness. The danger of this is that the dopamine
rush feels so good that we don’t notice we’re making more mistakes. This is
comparable to the rush you might feel while playing the slot machines in a
casino. Stimulated and entertained by the flashing lights, the ringing bells,
and the distracting, carnival-like atmosphere, gamblers go into a pleasure
trance, addicted to the illusion of winning money when, in fact, they’re going
broke. It’s important to be aware of how multitasking can stimulate us into
mindlessness, giving the illusion of productivity while stealing our focus and
harming performance. “When you are walking, walk. When you are sitting, sit,”
is ancient wisdom. Hopping rapidly from one thing to the next, answering the
phone while we’re shuffling papers while we’re sipping a latte, we fritter away
our attention and forget more easily. In addition to dopamine, multitasking
prompts the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones, which contribute
to short-term memory loss as well as long-term health problems. This also means
that the information we take in while multitasking is harder to retrieve later
than information we take in while concentrating. That is why learning to be a
unitasker in a multitasking world is so vital.
Rather than divide
our attention, it is far more effective to take frequent breaks between
intervals of sustained, one-pointed attention. A Web designer named Brian
figured this out for himself with no knowledge of neuroscience. “I work for a
community news site and have to be online from nine to five,” Brian says. “It
can really fry the brain and get tedious. I’ve found that if I take ten minutes
or so for every hour of work to do something for myself, like read somebody’s
blog or take a walk, it helps me concentrate when I turn back to my duties.”
Although this may sound difficult, Brian’s increased focus enables him to return
to the task at hand with surprising ease. “Instead of hopping from thing to
thing—which is so tempting with the Internet—I focus on what’s in front of me.
Then I let myself dillydally to give my brain a rest. When it comes to work,
less is definitely more in terms of feeling satisfied. And efficient.” While
this may sound counterintuitive, relaxing our focus for regular intervals and
pacing our sustained concentration sharpens attention and renders the mind more
Debunking the myth
of multitasking, we become much better at what we do and increase the chance of
being able to remember the details of work we have done in the past.
The Pauses That
Being more in touch
with our motivations or intentions will reveal a lot about the ethical dimension
of our actions. Before a conversation, pause for a few moments to determine
what you would most like to come out of it. Do you want most to be seen as
right or as helpful? Do you want to foster progress or hinder it? Also pause
before sending an email, with the same reflection: What do I most want to see
come from this communication? The other party to feel diminished or encouraged?
Them to go away or increase their involvement in my project? And do the same
thing before a specific choice or decision—What do I most want to see as the
outcome? Peace or excitement? Ease or stimulation? You don’t need to condemn
what you see or decide you’ll always see the same thing inside yourself, like a
fixed characteristic, but try to become more sensitive to what is motivating
you in this moment before you speak or act.
One Thing at a Time
In this meditation,
we try to be more fully present with every component of a single activity. At a
time when you’re not likely to be distracted or disturbed by obligations, make
yourself some tea. Fill the teakettle slowly, listening to the changing tone of
the water as the level rises, the bubbling as it boils, the hissing of steam,
the whistle of the pot. Slowly measure loose tea into a strainer, place it in
the pot, and inhale the fragrant vapor as it steeps. Feel the heft of the pot
and the smooth receptivity of the cup. Continue the meditation as you reach for
a cup: Observe its color and shape and the way it changes with the color of the
tea. Put your hands around it and feel its warmth. As you lift it, feel the
gentle exertion in your hand and forearm. Hear the tea faintly slosh as you
lift the cup. Inhale the scented steam and experience the smoothness of the cup
on your lips, the light mist on your face, the warmth or slight scald of the
first sip on your tongue. Taste the tea; what flavor do you detect? Notice any
leaf bits on your tongue, the sensation of swallowing, the warmth traveling the
length of your throat. Feel your breath against the cup creating a tiny cloud of
steam. Feel yourself put the cup down. Focus on each separate step in the
drinking of tea.
9 Tips for Stealth
Meditation at Work
1. As you sit down to work, scan the
sensations in your body, from your head to your feet. Notice areas of tension
and breathe into them.
2. Nourish yourself! Eat a meal mindfully,
noticing the colors, the flavors, the textures of what you are eating.
3. Try to perform a simple, conscious act of
kindness every day. It can be as simple as holding an elevator door or saying
thank you in a sincere manner.
4. Mentally acknowledge those who have helped
you learn the skills you have, who have taught you to be better at your job. We
are all part of a larger web.
5. Notice how you are holding something in
your hand—a pencil or a cup, for instance. Sometimes we exert so much force
holding things it exacerbates tension without our realizing it.
6. Every time you feel bored, pay more
attention to the moment. Are you listening carefully or are you multitasking?
7. Read an entire email twice before composing
8. Travel to work some days without your iPod,
book, or phone. Experience the transition to work as a journey.
9. For an upcoming one-on-one conversation,
resolve to listen more and speak less.
Reprinted from Real
Happiness at Work by Sharon Salzberg, with permission of Workman Publishing
Illustration by Andre Slob.